The Skills of the Unskilled in the American Industrial Revolution
Research on Innovation Working Paper
51 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2000
Date Written: September 2000
Were ordinary factory workers unskilled and was technology "de-skilling" during the Industrial Revolution? I measure foregone output to estimate the human capital investments in mule spinners and power loom tenders in ante-bellum Lowell. These investments rivaled those of craft apprentices, suggesting a different view of industrial technology. Accounting for skill, multi-factor productivity growth was negligible, contrary to previous findings. From 1834-55, firms made increasing investments in skill, allowing workers to tend more machines and generating rapid growth of per-capita output. This growing investment was motivated partly by changing factor prices and more by a changing labor supply. Calculations show that firm policy and social conditions, including literacy, influenced the investment in factory skills. When skills are considered, technological change at Lowell appears as a broad social process, dependent as much on innovation in institutions as on invention of machines.
JEL Classification: O30, N61, J24
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation